Spectacular Awaits: The US Open Ball Crew

A inside look into the once in a lifetime experience of being a US Open Ballperson

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Joanna Meng

With the U.S. Open finals just around the corner on September 10 and 11, all eyes of the tennis world are on Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, NY. Practically unrecognizable from its incarnation as Stuyvesant’s graduation site, I spent my last weeks of summer vacation roaming the grounds at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Tennis Center as a member of the U.S. Open Ball Crew. While most tennis spectators focus their attention on the players during matches, the ball crew plays an indispensable role in keeping matches running smoothly—whether it’s clearing balls off the court, holding umbrellas for the players, or providing players with the right number of service balls, the ball crew has a role in all of it.

The process of becoming a U.S. Open Ball Crew member begins in early June when the online application, which includes some basic information about yourself, a resume, and a quick tennis quiz, is due. Once participants are confirmed for a tryout, supervisors provide a manual covering most of the skills that will be tested during tryouts. To prepare, I watched every YouTube video I could find about being a ball person, which included a Seinfeld episode and an ELLE undercover report, and even woke up early to practice on the local tennis courts. Despite my efforts, nothing could prepare me for the nerves I felt during the 15-minute tryout. Each supervisor had a different way of holding tryouts: some simulated an actual match while others tested the skills individually. I left the courts with a sinking feeling in my stomach, all prepared to practice more and try again next year. The odds also weren’t in my favor, as generally, about 500 people try out and only about 150 make it onto the team. Surprisingly, within a week of tryouts, I received an email welcoming me as an official member of the 2022 U.S. Open Ball Crew. In mid-August, there was one day of training and an orientation, but then right after, the tournament began.

It may seem like a basic job—all you need to do is run after a ball, right? Yet, there are many hidden rules that make a ball person’s job no easy feat. A successful ball person needs to have good hand-eye coordination, speed, focus, a positive attitude, and a good understanding of tennis rules to know where the balls need to be at any given time. On top of that, they need to be able to withstand the grueling summer heat and the constant rays of sunshine beating down onto the courts. But their most important role is to go unnoticed, as the ball crew is there to make sure the match runs smoothly for the players. Ballpersons work in teams of four or six, depending on which courts the match is being played on, with either three “backs” and one “net” or four “backs” and two “nets.” The back position is responsible for chasing down the tennis ball and providing the players with balls before their serve. The net position is responsible for running across the court to retrieve balls that have hit the net and providing shade for the players during changeovers. Ballpersons work on shifts—one and a half hours on, one and a half hours off. Typically, those under 18 only work two shifts per day. Like the tryouts, nerves played a major role in my performance during the first few matches, but after a while, the rolling, bouncing, and running all became a second nature.

Being on the U.S. Open Ball Crew is an experience like none other. With a spot right on the court, it is one of the best seats in the house. Out of all the Grand Slam tennis tournaments, only ballpersons at the U.S. Open are paid an hourly wage. Most are paid minimum wage but veterans can make more. Not only is it a paid job but members of the ball crew are given a daily food allowance, plus an unlimited supply of Body Armor and Polo Ralph Lauren uniforms, which cover from hat to shoes, and can be kept even after the tournament. In addition, the credential a ballperson receives acts like a grounds pass, allowing access to every court except Arther Ashe, where a ballperson can watch their favorite players during their off time. Walking through the crowds at the USTA National Tennis Center, I’ve felt the buzz and excitement radiating from all corners. Putting all that aside, just being able to assist the biggest names in tennis makes it all worth it.

People from all over the country come to New York City for the honor of serving on the U.S. Open Ball Crew. It is a great end-of-summer job where you can make memories that will last a lifetime. So, if you tune in to the U.S. Open Finals this weekend, keep an eye out for the brightly-colored ball crew who are there to keep the game running smoothly.